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Three years later: Khadija Saye, Grenfell and the art world’s problem with race

Peitaw, 2017
Khadija Saye
Wet plate collodion tintype on metal
250 x 200mm
Image courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye

Words by:

The Black Lives Matter movement has been at the forefront of the news in recent months, with anti-racist protests around the world gathering in support of the Black community. It comes after the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis in May, and has grown into a global cry for justice. As part of this wider shift, the art world is being forced to confront difficult truths about the exclusionary racial biases that have long influenced its workforce and the artists who it chooses to represent.

In July, a public exhibition of the photographic works of Khadija Saye opened on a busy street in west London. Saye, a young Gambian-British artist, was one of the 72 who lost their lives in the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. She was just 24 years old. Titled Breath Is Invisible, the exhibition is part of the new Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme, which sets out to tackle issues of social inequality and injustice, with a particular focus on the lack of diversity in the arts. With collaborative, site-specific exhibitions, it builds on the work of IntoUniversity, an educational charity from which Saye received support. Originally conceived at a community centre adjacent to Grenfell Tower, IntoUniversity runs local learning centres in the heart of marginalised communities across the UK.

(Left) Sothiou, (Right) Ragal, 2017
Khadija Saye
Wet plate collodion tintype on metal
250 x 200mm
Images courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye

(Left) Nak Bejjen, (Right) Limoŋ 2017
Khadija Saye
Wet plate collodion tintype on metal
250 x 200mm
Images courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye

Launched by Tottenham Labour MP David Lammy, the IntoArts Programme aims to address the undeniable social mobility crisis in the arts and cultural sector, where people from disadvantaged groups occupy only eight percent of jobs. It’s not an issue that is unique to the UK. In 2019, it was found that 85 percent of artists represented in the collections of 18 museums across the US, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago, are white. While efforts are now being made to diversify these collections, both in the US and in the UK, there must be more work done to ensure that greater representation starts sooner.

“You’ve got to start introducing children to different creative ideas and outputs as early as possible,” Dr Rachel Carr OBE, the chief executive and co-founder of IntoUniversity, tells me. “The earlier that children are aware of art and culture and the wide breadth of opportunities that they can offer, the more likely they are to be able to get involved. The IntoArts Programme seemed a very good idea to create a way forward for other Khadijas in the future.” Saye was just seven years old when she began to receive support; she attended a Carnival Arts Programme in Notting Hill, and was later accepted on a scholarship to study at a private sixth form, following several years of mentoring.

In the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the racial lines that so often delineate social inequality were made cruelly evident. In Kensington and Chelsea, the wealthiest borough in the UK, some of the richest in society live alongside the poorest; on a brief walk through the area, you are likely to encounter townhouses worth well over a million pounds on the same street as a densely packed council estate. The majority of those living in the tower were immigrants and, unsurprisingly, the greatest number who perished in the fire were from ethnic minority backgrounds. It is a racial imbalance that is sadly representative of wider society. Twenty percent of Britain’s white population live in poverty, compared to 50 percent of people of African descent.

Peitaw, 2017
Khadija Saye
Wet plate collodion tintype on metal
250 x 200mm
Image courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye

For Khadija Saye, the fire came just one month after she had exhibited for the first time at the 57th Venice Biennale in the Diaspora Pavilion. She showed portraits of herself performing Gambian spiritual rituals, captured in tintype prints that, through their archaic process, convey a shimmering weight that feels almost like alchemy. The connection with the spiritual infuses each image, as if the shadows and light that collide in them are reaching towards an otherworldly energy. Saye’s investigations, in her own words, were rooted in the “urge to find solace in a higher power”. These mesmeric works can now be seen in Notting Hill, the large-format prints displayed directly in the street, a stone’s throw from the place that Saye called home.

Three years on from the tragedy, the heavy presence of Grenfell Tower looms large, while the creative industry remains as exclusive as ever. Unlike many careers, whether in academia, law or medicine, the art world rarely offers a linear path for progression. It lacks transparency, with many jobs advertised only through informal channels or family connections. Success against the odds can feel like sleight of hand, and to be in the right place at the right time is almost impossible. “It’s so hard to get into the arts sector; it often requires knowing people, and it requires being able to afford to have a start point,” Carr of IntoUniversity agrees. “Khadija herself was just on the cusp of her artistic career taking off, but she was juggling pursuing her art career with earning money in the care sector.”

This division of labour often presents an impossible balancing act for those who do not come from a privileged background. An artist in the UK can expect to earn an average of £16,150 each year, of which £6,020 (36 percent) comes from their art practice. Two-thirds earn less than £5k from their art, with just seven percent earning more than £20k, according to a report published last year by Arts Council England. It is little surprise that those who find themselves able to succeed often have an alternative source of private income, such as a partner’s salary or inherited wealth. “In simple terms,” the report notes, “the more time visual artists can spend on their art, the more they can earn from that art.”

(Left) Toor-Toor, (Centre) Tééré, (Right) Kurus
Khadija Saye
Wet plate collodion tintype on metal
250 x 200mm
Images courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye

For many, the greatest barrier to entry is the self-belief and confidence to pursue a career in the arts. For an industry that is so deeply rooted in creativity, it does little to instil imagination and ambition in those less likely to have access to that world. If you don’t know anyone who works in a top museum or gallery, why would you picture yourself in their place? If the sector is to diversify, it needs to open up those personal connections within communities where a trajectory into the art world is less of a natural step forward and more of a leap of faith.

There is greater transparency needed when it comes to creative opportunities. Change shouldn’t take place only at the most visible end of prestigious museum collections and gallery representation; it must start right at the beginning. In childhood, the positive impact of a mentoring and support programme might be less immediately obvious but can have a profound impact. For the future of the arts to be markedly different to the current broken system, that change needs to start now.

Breath Is Invisible is currently running at Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill until 9 October 2020. Find out more about The Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme here.

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